After the Orlando Magic’s win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, the question came fairly late in the press conference with Paolo Banchero and Moe Wagner. The Magic are one of the last teams to get to jump into the In-Season Tournament, but their time is coming with Tuesday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets.
Their time has finally come. The question is just how seriously will the team take it.
Banchero, the now-21-year-old that he is, probably said it best after Saturday’s game. There is $500,000 on the line. I don’t know about you, but that is plenty of motivation, he said.
The tongue may be firmly in the cheek there. Banchero is not quite on the supermax contract yet but he is making a healthy $11.6 million this year. The money aspect of things has gotten some eye rolls as the NBA tries to create interest and motivation for this new trophy and tournament the team has taken.
Perhaps the money is enough. Winning a trophy certainly will be enough. But everyone is still getting used to the idea of this In-Season Tournament. Whether everyone is bought in or not, it is here. And in all likelihood, it will ramp up in intensity as the team gets deeper into the tournament.
First the Magic have to get there. And that starts Tuesday with the opening game against the Nets.
The Orlando Magic begin their In-Season Tournament run Tuesday in Brooklyn. Nobody quite knows what to make of this tournament yet, but it is an opportunity to keep growing.
So what is this tournament? What do you have to know? Why should you care?
On one hand, these are still regular season games, dressed up a bit differently. By the end of the group play, the games may have more meaning as teams prepare for the knockout rounds and the single-elimination phase of the tournament. The Magic have to get there.
So the first place to start is the schedule and the format.
The Schedule and Format
Every team in the NBA was split into their Eastern or Western Conferences and split into three groups of five. The Orlando Magic will face the Brooklyn Nets (Nov. 14), Chicago Bulls (Nov. 17), Toronto Raptors (Nov. 21) and Boston Celtics (Nov. 24). They will start on the road in Brooklyn and Chicago this week and then host Toronto and Boston next week at the Amway Center.
Orlando will get that benefit of playing all four of those games right in a row on tournament days (every Tuesday and Friday in November is a tournament day). The Magic and Raptors are the only teams who have yet to play an In-Season Tournament group game and the Magic will also be the first team to finish their In-Season Tournament schedule.
But that also puts them squarely in the crosshairs in a critical game Tuesday to open their In-Season Tournament schedule.
The Celtics are squarely the favorites to win the group — the Celtics are still the overall favorites to win the In-Season Tournament at 9/2 odds according to FanDuel Sportsbook. The Magic are third in line to win the group at 13/2 odds behind the Raptors.
According to the current standings though, the Orlando Magic are second in the early season at 5-4 with the Brooklyn Nets trailing them at 5-5 after Sunday’s win over the Washington Wizards.
The winner of each group will advance to the quarterfinal single-elimination round. One second place team from each conference will fill out the final spot in that round.
This makes every game important. And even more important heading into Tuesday’s game.
Brooklyn has already played two In-Season Tournament games, defeating Chicago and losing to Boston on the road. Like the Magic, the Nets probably felt having two home games to close the schedule would put them in a good spot to advance after an expected loss to the Celtics.
That means if the Nets want to advance out of the group phase, they almost certainly have to win their next two games. If the Magic want to ensure an easier path out of the group stage, Tuesday becomes a must-win and perhaps a decisive game.
It is still too early to look at the standings — Boston is 1-0, Brooklyn is 1-1 and Chicago is 0-1 with Orlando and Toronto yet to play any games — but it is important to know what the tiebreakers are.
Obviously record determines who advances. The first tiebreaker for group play is head to head matchups. The next tiebreaker for both group and wild card play is point differential. Avoiding blowouts is going to be key in these games for losses and winning by as much as possible will be just as key.
The next tiebreaker is total points in the group stage. If teams are still tied, then last year’s standings will break any remaining ties.
That obviously does not help the Magic.
Everyone will be eyeing the standings as the games get going. That only highlights how big Tuesday’s game could be for the Magic to eliminate the Nets from contention and gets things started off well for Orlando. Nobody is quite sure whether 3-1 can win the group or whether 3-1 will be necessary for the wild card.
It is easy to see why the excitement is muted. So much is theoretical right now. As we get closer to the end of group play what the Magic need to do will be much clearer.
The three group winners and the one wild card will play a single elimination game on Dec. 4 and 5. Teams that were eliminated during group play will play their two added regular season games on Dec. 6 and 8. The semifinals take place Dec. 7 in Las Vegas with the championship game Dec. 9 in Las Vegas.
As a reminder, all the games played until the championship game will count toward the team’s regular season record.
The Court and Jerseys
The fact that these are still regular season games certainly makes it feel like these games are normal and part of the natural flow of the season. It would be very easy not to feel these games have any special meaning to them — as manufactured as the tournament is right now with it being so theoretical.
The NBA fixed that by ordering in special courts and having every home team wear its City Edition jersey for the games. Bally Sports has even brought out special graphics during the games it has broadcast during this tournament.
The viewer experience is certainly going to feel different. Maybe that is a good thing, maybe that is a bad thing.
The court designs — a fully painted court with a different-colored stripe lengthwise down the middle and the NBA Cup in both paints and at mid-court — are definitely hit or miss. Friday’s game in Chicago is going to take some adjusting with how bright the red is on the United Center floor.
But the Magic’s court, based off its City Edition jersey, does not look to be too bad:
Reactions to the Magic’s City Edition jersey was already fairly mixed — although nobody seemed to upset after they took the court with them for the first time Monday against the Dallas Mavericks. The only real complaint seems to be that the shade of blue is too dark and not the traditional Magic shade.
Everyone is a fan of the team bringing the star back to its word fonts. And the Magic’s City Edition jersey is considered one of the better ones in this year’s largely underwhelming batch.
Whether people believe it or not, the special jerseys do create a big-game feel to these games. Orlando is 3-1 already in its Classic Edition jerseys and there is plenty of buzz whenever the team wears them. The special court and City Edition jerseys could bring out the same special feel for players as it will for fans.
The important thing to remember though is this is the first year of this tournament. Everyone is still figuring it out and how it fits into the season and each team’s plans. Not to mention what benefits it might bring.
For a young team like the Magic, it could be good practice of playing in pressure games. Even if they are manufactured, it is a chance to do some learning and growing. And maybe win something. That is ultimately a good thing even if it is contrived.
But nobody really knows.
There will almost certainly be some tweaks to the tournament format next year after feedback from players, coaches and executives with how this first tournament goes.
But it is here. And the league is all-in on making it feel big this season. You might as well embrace the opportunity and enjoy some basketball that may involve more pressure this early in the season.